When he was a doctoral student, French immunologist Nicolas Delahaye spent 2 weeks in Burkina Faso in West Africa. The visit “influenced my life and my choices during my career,” he says. While he was there, he had an idea.
It is not uncommon for scientists visiting developing countries to come back with innovative ideas for easing the hardships of vulnerable populations. Often, such ideas end up in the back of a drawer. Delahaye, though, kept his idea in his pocket. When he put his project into motion 12 years later, it wasn’t, as you might expect, via a nonprofit organization or a startup social enterprise. It was at GSK Vaccines, a Belgium-based division of pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, where Delahaye works as an R&D scientist.
An idea, if it just stays at the stage of an idea, is nothing.
The making of an intrapreneur
Delahaye has a longstanding ambition to apply biological insights to the design of novel therapeutic strategies for patients. After grounding himself in math, molecular and cellular genetics, and immunology, he embarked on a 1-year master’s project at the University of the Mediterranean (which has now gone through a merger to become Aix-Marseille University), characterizing the genetic factors associated with malaria resistance under the supervision of Pascal Rihet. He continued the work for a Ph.D. It was a productive period. He published six papers and graduated with honors in 2006.
A case of cancer was diagnosed in his family, and Delahaye decided to spend his postdoc working on tumor immunogenetics in the laboratory of Laurence Zitvogel at the Institut Gustave Roussy in Paris. “He moved from malaria to cancer … and therefore had to learn everything on his new research subject,” Rihet writes in an interview with Science Careers.
In Zitvogel’s lab, Delahaye studied how understanding the role of the immune system in cancer could help doctors predict clinical outcomes and response to chemotherapy. He identified biomarkers with therapeutic potential, filing three patents and joining, as data manager, a proof-of-concept clinical trial to determine immunogenetic predisposition to gastrointestinal cancer.
In 2008, he took a job as a project leader at Institut Gustave Roussy’s Centre of clinical investigation in biotherapy, managing a team focused on using host-related genetic factors to predict response to anticancer treatments. There, he honed his skills in biostatistics, clinical trial management, and epidemiology.
While at the institute, Delahaye grew impatient with the limited funding and human resources available in academia. “I was a bit frustrated when I saw the difficulties to set up a clinical trial, when we know that we have a potential new treatment that can work and that can benefit the patients,” he says. So he joined GSK Vaccines in 2010, as a molecular biologist in the company’s Antigen-Specific Cancer Immunotherapeutic program, which aims to harness the immune system for the development of well-tolerated cancer therapies. At GSK, Delahaye has proven to be a very structured, reliable scientist with a passion for his project and a flexible mindset, writes his supervisor, Jamila Louahed, medicine development leader at GSK, in an e-mail to Science Careers.
Mainly in academia but also in industry, Delahaye had come to realize that while it’s common for researchers to have a lot of ideas, they often struggle to realize them. So in 2013, he negotiated time off to earn a qualification in innovation management from the Louvain School of Management. His goal was to achieve “a full vision of how, once we have an idea, we can implement it as soon as possible to generate value for the patients” and the company. After all, “an idea, if it just stays at the stage of an idea, is nothing,” he says.
Making it real
Delahaye has long felt a strong social calling. “I like generating new ideas which address a social issue,” especially when it is “related to the world’s most pressing health problems,” he says. During his grad-school visit to Burkino Faso, he witnessed the distress of undernourished children, who, in addition to suffering malnutrition’s direct effects, also carried infections due to a range of immune dysfunctions. Delahaye envisioned a nutraceutical that would restore nutrition levels while boosting immune response.
But while Delahaye believed in his idea, he was also pragmatic. He recognized the challenge of commercializing a product aimed at low-income populations. He saw two possible ways forward—but he wasn’t rich, he says, so that left just one way: “to join … a multinational company that had all the infrastructures and the resources to be able to manage and implement in a successful way such a … project.”
The opportunity to pursue his vision came a couple of years after he joined GSK, soon after the online social entrepreneurship community Ashoka Changemakers launched an international competition called “The League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business from the Inside Out,” with GSK as a sponsor. An intrapreneur is a new breed of entrepreneur who works in the context of a big company. Social intrapreneurs utilize those resources to advance a social cause.
With support from GSK, which produces vaccines against viruses causing severe diarrhea and pneumonia and is working on a vaccine against malaria, Delahaye refined his idea to focus on a nutraceutical to be administered during vaccination campaigns. The product should, he decided, be produced locally and sustainably to boost the local economy, and the poorest populations should be able to afford it. The competition “was a great opportunity to mature the business,” Delahaye says.
He didn’t win, but later that year GSK launched an internal competition for intrapreneurship projects, inviting employees to submit innovative ideas. Delahaye built a team with colleagues from the R&D, medical affairs, procurement, marketing, finance, business operations, and health economics departments. Developing the idea into presentable form while working together across departments, on top of the regular workload, is an important early achievement, says Anil Dutta, vice president, clinical R&D and medical affairs, GSK Biologicals. Dutta sits on the board overseeing Delahaye’s project.
After the team demonstrated the potential benefits to vaccine recipients, public health, and the company, the project was selected to take the first steps toward implementation.
Many of the challenges the team is encountering are common to all entrepreneurs. “You have to manage a project from the beginning to the end, to handle several aspects you are not used to working on. … You have to establish contacts with experts [who] can help you,” Delahaye says. Intrapreneurs must also show motivation, perseverance, leadership, adaptability, and flexibility in thinking, he adds.
The big difference between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs is the support a multinational company like GSK can provide. Delahaye’s team has access to resources, a wide range of experts, and mentoring. In return, the team is expected to meet milestones and objectives and fine-tune their strategy each year. If they continue to receive positive evaluations, they could receive support all the way through to the project’s completion.
“I would love to be able to scale up the project so that … the concept can benefit several countries all over the world,” Delahaye says. “I would be interested in leading an innovation department where the goal would be to develop social business solutions for emerging markets.”
Further Resources on Social Intrapreneurship
“Insights on Intrapreneurship from a Google+ Hangout with Ashoka Changemakers” by John Converse Townsend
Social Intrapreneurism and All that Jazz: How Business Innovators are Helping to Build a More Sustainable World by David Grayson, Melody McLaren, and Heiko Spitzeck of the Cranfield University School of Management
The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers by The Skoll Foundation, Allianz, IDEO, and SustainAbility
A TEDx talk on how to “Be the Change You Want to See in Your Company” by Founder and Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships Gib Bulloch
Intrapreneurship Conference 2014: Unlock the Innovation Power of Your Organization, on 10-12 December 2014 in Eindhoven, The Netherlands